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Time-Life Music is a brand label that specializes in creating and marketing various hits music collections for consumers. The main scope of music offered by these compilation albums is currently on popular, rock and country music, although all genres have been represented.

Time-Life Music dates to the early 1960s, when the company's book firm began offering music collections (two to five records), packaged together with a book into a sturdy box set. One of the first multi-volume offerings was "The Sounds of History," an audio supplement to Life Magazine's "History of the United States" series. The 12-LP set, issued in 1964, followed a format that saw the "A" side of the record containing re-creations of historic events and speeches (prior to about 1900, after which actual soundbites note  were used), along with readings from historical documents and excerpts from literature of the period; and music from the period on the "B" side. The records were narrated by Frederic March and Florence Eldridge

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The first successful music subscription series was titled "Great Music Series," issued in 1966 and focusing on classical music. That series was divided into two main categories: "The Story of Great Music" and "Concerts of Great Music," both focusing either on composers, eras of music or both. That series also had various-hits type compilations that focused on eras of music, such as "The Romantic Era" and "The Opulent Era."

The "Great Music Series" set a template of things to come for later volumes:

  • A booklet of some sort, with essays by a particular genre's expert, magazine writer, etc., about the music and/or artists. Illustrations abounded, including rare photographs.
  • Music included the most popular or essential tracks from the given subject, plus some rarities.
  • Buyers could purchase the series in a number of ways:
    • On subscription, operating much like book or record clubs of the time. The customer would receive the first volume on a trial basis (usually 10 to 30 days) with no obligation to buy; sometimes, the first volume was offered at a discounted price. If the customer agreed to keep the set, he would send a check or pay by credit card (which in the late 1960s was still a relative novelty), but if he didn't enjoy it, he could also return the album or box set with no questions asked. Usually, new volumes were issued at regular intervals, typically one every six weeks to two months, with six to eight new volumes per year. At any time, the customer could decide to stop receiving albums ... all he had to do was call a number or write to a given address to be put on the stop list.
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    • After a given series was available for awhile, he could purchase individual volumes of his choice, even if he did not subscribe to the series. This was common if a given record was damaged or, more commonly, if only one or more specific albums were of interest to the customer, and the other ones weren't.
  • The customer had a choice of format. When the "Great Music Series" was first offered, the customer had to go with vinyl albums, although 8-track tapes may have also been offered. Later volumes offered a choice of LPs or 8-tracks, and still later cassettes. In the late 1980s, when popular and rock music was first offered, compact discs were offered alongside the LPs and cassettes, before in 1991 only CDs and cassettes were available. Since the mid-2000s and the demise of cassette tapes, only CDs have been available.
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As was the case with the book holdings, the selection of Time-Life Music's offerings became more diversified, branching out into jazz, big band, swing and show music. As was the case with another direct marketer, Reader's Digest Music, Time-Life's offerings was mainly targeted to adults with conservative music tastes, with nothing in the way of rock music or anything resembling that; the closest things got was in the early 1980s when two waves of country music series were offered.

But that would change.

On the heels of two successful pop music-intensive series, "Big Bands" (1983) and "Legendary Singers" (1984), Time-Life took a gamble by delving into a style of popular music it had strove to avoid for many years: rock and roll. The new series was called "The Rock 'n' Roll Era," and it focused on popular music that was popular with teenagers and young adults in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Each volume of the new series focused on a particular year (in this case, 1955 through 1964 — the early, pre-Beatles years of rock music), a stylistic trend or particular artist influential in rock music. Each volume had 22 to 24 tracks, and was said to contain the original hit recording by the original artist note . The songs themselves represented the most important and popular songs from the period or subject featured. An essay published by Both Sides Now Publications noted that Time-Life's move into rock music came at a time when much of the adult audience Time-Life catered to grew up during the rock-and-roll era and, as such, the new series was consistent with its goal of catering to an adult audience.

"The Rock 'n' Roll Era" series was to say the least a huge success, and by the time the final volume was issued in the early 1990s, more than 50 different volumes (including two Christmas albums) had been released. This paved the way for more country and pop music-intensive series, including "Country USA," "Classic Rock" (unlike what the name today may imply, the series focuses on popular and rock music of the mid-to-late 1960s) "Sounds of the Seventies," "Sounds of the Eighties," "Your Hit Parade" (a series featuring popular music of the 1940s through early 1960s), "Super Hits" (later renamed "AM Gold," consisting of adult contmporary music of the 1960s and 1970s) "Rhythm and Blues," "Contemporary Country," "Guitar Rock," "Classic Country," "Modern Rock" and "Singers and Songwriters." Like the earlier series, each volume issued had its own paperback booklet containing liner notes and information about the songs, with the addition of placement on various Billboard magazine charts. In the meantime, some non-popular music series — i.e., classical, swing and big band, and blues music — continued to be offered under newer titles.

Many of the series, especially in the late 1980s through late 1990s, were huge sales successes, although — at least according to Both Sides Now Publications — there were a few duds in the bunch, most notably "As You Remember Them: The Great Instrumentals," an early 1970s series that had sound-alike re-recordings of easy listening instrumentals of the 1950s and 1960s note ; and "Grooves," a mid-1990s attempt to market alternative and folk music, mainly from lesser-known artists in a "magazine" format (a format that had become popular in marketing new music, particularly from new, up-and-coming and lesser-known artists)note .

As was the case with the earlier box sets, these new series were advertised in magazines, catalogs, on television and by direct mail. The television advertisements were either commercials or 30-minute infomercials, often using slogans such as "Relive your high school days ...," clips of songs included in each volume (along with a scrolling list of other titles), a commercial spokesman (usually a performer or legendary disc jockey relevant to a given series, such as Rick Dees for a 1970s-intensive collection and Ralph Emery for a country music series) and testimonials from customers attesting to the quality and value of the albums, to pitch a given series. Key selling points of these collections are that each track was digitally transferred to the desired format using the original master recordings, as opposed to being "re-records"; and that the most popular and requested songs by customers could be found in a single collection (as opposed to a customer having to purchase many albums to obtain just a few desired tracks).

Aside from minor faults such as re-recordings of original hits (a rarity, and only if the original master absolutely was unavailable), the biggest omission was due to licensing issues. Examples included The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the Classic Rock and "Super Hits"/"AM Gold" series; Garth Brooks on various country music series; and Prince, Madonna, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson on the main Sounds of the Eighties series.

By 2010, the final of the subscription series was ended (as consumer buying habits were changing), and only multi-CD sets were being offered under various titles, such as "The Fabulous Fifties," "Country Romance" and "Malt Shop Memories." Some of the original volumes have been repackaged under various titles and included in these new series, and in addition Time-Life's offerings have expanded to video, mainly classic television series. Popular video offerings include The Midnight Special, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts and Hee Haw. That has kept Time-Life Music running strong.

Several of the series – especially the pop, rock, country and rhythm and blues series – had retail versions for sale, released after the entire series was issued. Typically, these were sold at discount stores, often grouped in three-CD sets of 12 tracks each and having the most popular of the series' tracks, and cover artwork and naming loosely based off the subscription/catalog-exclusive titles. Additionally, the "Classic Country" series had special 15-track single-CD versions of several of its volumes issued for retail sale (in addition to budget 3-CD sets).

Today, many of these series remain prized cornerstones of many consumers' music collections, and copies often appear on online sales sites such as eBay and Amazon, with rarer volumes often going for prices in the hundreds of dollars.

"Just take a look at what great subscription series Time-Life Music had to offer ..."

Known to be available, per the website Both Sides Now:

  • "Great Music" (1966), focusing on classical music. Initial volumes focused on various eras of music, while later issues followed the great concerts.
  • "As You Remember Them: The Great Instrumentals" (1972), sound-alike versions (mostly by the Billy May Orchestra) of easy-listening instrumentals of the 1950s and 1960s. One of the first to be offered in a choice of formats (vinyl LP, 8-track or cassette).
  • "The Swing Era" (1973), a much better-received "sound-alike" series of big band and swing music, with recordings by the Billy May Orchestra and the Glen Grey Casa Loma Orchestra. Possibly the earliest series to be re-released on compact disc in the late 1990s (although the sequencing was different).
  • "The Great Men of Music" (1974), an updated series focusing on classical music, this time on the composers.
  • "Arthur Fiedler & the Boston Pops Orchestra" (1977), music from the longtime conductor and orchestra.
  • "Giants of Jazz" (1978), music from the great jazz entertainers, from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Twenty-eight different performers were profiled through 1983, and as an added bonus to the jazz connoisseur, each volume had an 8-by-8-inch print suitable for framing.
  • "American Musicals" (1980), music from the great musicals through the early 1960s.
  • "The Mozart Collection" (1980), music of the classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
  • "The Metropolitan Centennial Collection of Great Opera" (1981), English translations of music from the world's greatest operas.
  • "Great Performers" (1981), classical performers, mainly from the late 19th century onward. A related series, "Great Composers," was issued as part of a 2-disc CD series in the 1990s.
  • "Country Music" (1981), single-album series focusing on top country music artists. The first "budget series," with each album nine tracks (with variations of one either way depending on the volume).
  • "Country and Western Classics" (1982), three-LP sets, some focusing on artists and others on trends or subjects.
  • "Big Bands" (1983), two-LP sets focusing on popular music — mainly big bands and jazz — of the 1930s and 1940s. The performer-specific titles were issued on CD from 1992-1994; with the exception of an album that focused on music of World War II, the "various artists" albums were not part of the CD reissue.
  • "Great Ages of Music" (1984), an update to 1966's "Great Music" series. By now, paperback books were used rather than hardback books.
  • "Legendary Singers" (1985), complement to the "Big Bands" series, focusing on popular music singers such as Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, etc. First popular music series (other than country) to extend into 1960s. A number of titles were issued on CD both as part of the original series (around 1987, when Time-Life began offering CDs) and again in the mid-1990s.
  • "The Rock 'n' Roll Era" (1986), the series that changed Time-Life Music's fortunes and direction forever ... music of the mid-to-late 1950s through early 1960s that was popular with teenagers and young adults. Early volumes focused on year-by-year retrospectives and then general late 1950s and early 1960s, before shifting to stylistic trends. Interspersed were artist-specific volumes, focusing on the major artists of the time; artists and groups with their own CDs were The Beach Boys, Diana Ross & the Supremes, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Ricky Nelson; Elvis Presley got two volumes.
  • "Classic Rock" (1987), a piggyback on the "Rock 'n' Roll Era" series, this time focusing on music of 1964-1969.
  • "Your Hit Parade" (1988), completing the popular music picture of 1940-1969, this time focusing on easy-listening and non-rock popular music from the early 1940s through mid-1960s.
  • "Country U.S.A." (1988), one of the first important retrospectives of country music, focusing on the Golden Age (1950-1972). Possibly the last series to have any of its volumes issued on vinyl LP.
  • "Sounds Of the Seventies" (1989), music of the 1970s decade. The first Time-Life series to never have known vinyl offerings (ergo be available only on compact disc or cassette), as other series in existence were known to still offer vinyl.
  • "Super Hits" (1990), soft rock of the 1960s and 1970s. Later re-issued as "AM Gold."
  • "Rhythm and Blues" (1990), R&B music from the mid 1950s through 1970s.
  • "Contemporary Country" (1991), country music of the 1970s through early 1990s.
  • "Time-Life's History of Rock and Roll" (1992), short-lived series about rock and roll music's history, moreso as a history of the genre rather than general entertainment.
  • "Guitar Rock" (1993), classic rock and edgier pop music of the 1960s through mid-1980s.
  • "The Many Moods of Romance" (1994), easy-listening music supposedly meant to stoke intimate feelings.
  • "Instrumental Favorites" (1994), another "intimate music" collection, this time of instrumental favorites.
  • "Sounds Of the Eighties" (1994), music of 1980-1989 (along with a few 1990 tunes that were released in November-December 1989). Several of the titles were issued under the "Rolling Stone Collection" umbrella and were available either separately or as part of the series.
  • "Grooves" (1994), "magazine format" series focusing on alternative and folk music from up-and-coming artists and established legends.
  • "Living the Blues" (1995), focusing on the history of blues music, from the 1920s through the 1980s.
  • "Legendary Country Singers" (1995), single-disc CD series profiling a given legendary country artist or group. Twenty artists were featured over the life of the series, and each CD or double-cassette set (each having generally 25 tracks) had as its last track a previously-unissued (usually a very early recording from said artist) or "rare track" (such as, a critically acclaimed album track).
  • "The Heart of Rock 'n' Roll" (1995), another packaging of music of late 1950s and early 1960s. The far-better received "Rock 'n' Roll Era" series was still going strong at this point, but this one had several tracks on each album the former series did not include and — although it did not include any British Invasion music — went deeper into the 1960s (whereas Rock 'n' Roll Era generally stopped at 1964).
  • "Body Talk" (1996), more intimate, adult contemporary music, this time extending into the 1990s. This was the first series to have volumes issued on 2-disc CD (each having 12 tracks), although several single-disc volumes, generally of 18 songs, were issued.
  • "The Elvis Presley Collection" (1997), Elvis, Elvis and more of the Kingnote . Each 2-CD set — each containing 30 songs — included as the last track on Disc 2 a "rare" or previously-unreleased track.
  • "Classic Country" (1998), long-lived (and perhaps Time-Life's most popular ever of the genre) series on country music from the 1940s through the 1980s.
  • "Modern Rock" (1999), edgier pop music of the 1980s and early 1990s as heard on what's today known as classic hits stations; no adult contemporary or crossover country here.
  • "Glory Days Of Rock 'n' Roll" (1999), yet another repackaging of the old "Rock 'n' Roll Era" series (which was still going strong through subscription and individual volume sales, although by now, that series had been issued in its entirety). Best known for the "comic book"-style covers illustrating the concept of each volume and the CD labels taking on the appearance of a 45 RPM record.
  • "The Singers and Songwriters Collection" (2000), adult contemporary music, largely from the 1970s but extending from 1964-1987, focusing on the songwriters and the artists (although not necessarily the ones who wrote the songs) who recorded them.
  • "The Fabulous Fifties" (2000), famously pitched by Regis Philbin, focusing on music of the 1950s. In essence, it appeared there were nine unique 18-song CDs (or cassettes, which were still available), three to each of the three original volumes in the box set, for a total of 162 tracks. But, as Both Sides Now's commentary on the set pointed out, there may have been confusion with some customers as eventually retail versions were sold, of two, three and four CDs/cassettes each, and it took an expert shopper to be able to find each individual volume. Additionally, the original 9-CD box set had a 10th "bonus" volume, containing easy-listening/adult contemporary music of the early 1960s.
  • "Classic Rhythm & Blues" (2000), R&B music from the 1950s through 1980s.

"Call today and as a bonus, Time-Life Music will give you examples of these tropes ... "

  • The Thrties, The '40s, The '50s, The '60s, The '70s, The '80s and The '90s: On the popular music-centric series, the timespan from which various series drew from. For the most part, as far as subscription series went, things stopped at the early 1990s (although later CD sets Time-Life Music sold included music of the 1990s and more recent).
  • Audience-Alienating Premise: While most of Time-Life's series were big successes and resonated with their target audiences, there were a few flops over the years.
    • "Grooves," the magazine-formatted series of folk and alternative music first issued in 1994, is perhaps the best-known example. Reviewers with the website Both Sides Now noted that the promotional advertisements and mail flyers perhaps were a bit overdoing things in trying to market the new series to a skeptical target audience (college students and young adults who had grown tired of the same music being played on Top 40/classic hits and oldies/country radio stations day after day and were clamoring to hear something different). However, like many "magazine formatted" series of the timenote  there were few if any hits by any artists who mattered or ended up mattering, the series fell well short of expectations and was discontinued after less than a year and a half.
  • Bonus Album: Various subscription series offers have included, to help entice sales, a "special" bonus album at no extra cost. Usually, this was a single-disc album from a stand-alone or related series that was the customer's to keep (for instance, the Classic Country series included, from the Legendary Singers series, the Hank Williams CD), although other token merchandise, ranging from T-shirts and coasters to special posters suitable for framing, etc., were included as well.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Early series had a different Time-Life logo, and focused primarily on music catering to conservative tastes. Additionally, early LP pressings of various series — most notably "The Rock 'n' Roll Era" — had slightly different tracks and incorrect versions (corrected for later pressings).
    • Later Installment Weirdness: Starting with 1996's "Body Talk," volumes were issued as two-disc CDs, as opposed to a "double-length CD" of 20-25 songs each.
  • Nothing but Hits: All the essential songs and/or works of a year, artist or style profiled.
  • One- and Two-Hit Wonders: Many are included throughout the country and pop/rock series. In some cases, entire volumes were made up of exclusively one-hit wonders.
  • Operators Are Standing By: Especially in the era before online shopping, potential customers were given a phone number to call and advised to have credit card information at hand.
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